Ask Annie

So you want to snag a corporate board seat

June 14, 2012: 12:59 PM ET

Most companies still recruit directors the old-fashioned way -- it's all about who knows you -- but there are other ways to land a spot.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I read your recent column on how to get noticed by executive recruiters, which is actually how I got my current job a few years ago, but does the same advice apply to attracting headhunters who fill board seats? I am a chief financial officer at a medium-sized private company and have served on a couple of nonprofit boards, including one for a national organization, but I haven't yet cracked the code for getting asked to join a corporate board. I understand this has traditionally been a matter of "who you know," including who your golfing buddies are. Is that still true in this day and age? Do you (or your readers) have any inside tips on how to be considered for a directorship? — Ready and Waiting

Dear R.W.: You've chosen an interesting moment to ask, since many companies claim they're having trouble finding enough board candidates who are both qualified and willing. That's partly because federal laws and regulations, including Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, have made board membership more demanding and time-consuming than it used to be.

So this may be a good moment to go after a spot on a corporate board. In general, it does matter what kind of nonprofit board experience you have. "Anyone who wants to join a corporate board would do well to start with membership in the board of a health care or hospital system," says Ralph Ward, editor and publisher since 1997 of the newsletter Boardroom Insider. "With all the consolidation going on in health care now, those boards are dealing with huge budgets, and with complex financial and strategic issues, that are very similar to what corporate directors have to tackle."

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Since you mention that you got your current job through a headhunter, get in touch with that person. "Some recruiters do specialize in finding board members, but a better way to go is to work through an executive recruiter you already know, even if directorships are outside his or her usual area," says Ward. "A referral from someone who is already a fan of yours is much more likely to get you somewhere than 'cold calling' a recruiter who knows nothing about you."

At the same time, getting picked for a board seat is still, as you note, largely a matter of knowing the right people who are already on boards, so be ready to do some serious targeted networking. "First, identify which board, or boards, you'd like to join," suggests Mark Rogers, a Boston attorney who runs BoardProspects, an online service aimed at matching qualified candidates with openings. "Then find ways to connect with the people on them, a few of whom you may already know indirectly through your nonprofit activities."

Be patient, Rogers advises: "It may take a year or two for the right opportunity to come along. This is a long process." Social media may speed things up a bit. "Do some research into governance-related groups on LinkedIn," Ralph Ward suggests. "Find the most active ones, and join them. Participating in discussions, chiming in with comments and insights, can get you noticed."

He adds that "there's also a lot of governance-related tweeting going on. So get your name out there. Look up 'corporate governance' or 'corporate boards' on Twitter and start following people you find that way. It takes an investment of time, but it does often result in being tapped for a board seat."

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Don't neglect to mention to your boss that you're doing this. "Often the biggest obstacle people face is getting their bosses' okay. Directorships are time-consuming and, especially in rough economic times, CEOs usually hesitate to let their C-level people take on outside commitments," Ward says. "They want your full attention focused on your day job."

It might help if you can make the case that a particular directorship is likely to make you even better at the work you're already doing -- perhaps by letting you rub elbows with potential new customers, or giving you broader experience with long-range financial planning.

If all this sounds daunting, it is. But once you've been picked for one board seat, Ward says, "you'll go from famine to feast. Getting on your first board is tough. After that, you'll probably get more offers than you can handle."

That was Mark Rogers' experience: Within a year of snagging his first directorship, he was tapped for five more. He started BoardProspects, he says, because "while I was still looking for my first seat, I ran across so many qualified, talented people who were looking, too. There just was no direct, efficient way for us to connect to the boards that had openings to fill."

Good luck.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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